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The Scriptures, Human Sexuality and Sexual Morality, and Pope John Paul II’s “Theology of The Body”

William E. May

Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology

John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at

The Catholic University of America


           From September 5, 1979 through November 28, 1984, John Paul II gave a series of Wednesday audiences, divided into six “cycles” and embracing more than 120 addresses, on “The Theology of the Body.” [1] Here I will seek to show the profound help that several of these audiences, primarily given from September 5, 1979 through May, 1981, gives to us for understanding the teaching of Scripture on human sexuality and sexual morality.

The "Beatifying Beginning" of Human Existence

           It is fitting to begin with the first two chapters of Genesis because these chapters, which contain the stories of what Pope John Paul II has called the "beatifying beginning of human existence," [2] set forth precious truths of utmost importance to our topic.

            In first chapter of Genesis, attributed to the Priestly tradition, we read:

God created man [ha 'adam] in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them, saying: "Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth" (Gen 1:27-28).

           The second chapter of Genesis, attributed to the Yahwist source, declares:

The Lord God formed man [ha 'adam] out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being....The Lord God said: "It is not good for the man [ha 'adam] to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him."...The Lord God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. The Lord God then built up into a woman [ishshah] the rib that he had taken from the man [ha 'adam]. When he brought her to the man [ha 'adam], the man [ha 'adam] said: "This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called 'woman' [ishshah], for out of 'her man' [ish] this one has been taken." That is why a man [ish] leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife [ishshah], and the two of them become one body. The man [ish] and his wife [ishshah] were both naked, yet they felt no shame (Gen 2:7, 18, 21-25).

           Reflecting on these chapters, Pope John Paul II develops two ideas central to the “theology of the body.” The first is that the human body is the expression or revelation of the human person; the second is that the human body, because it exists as masculine and feminine, is the means and sign of the gift of the man-person to the female-person and vice versa, or what the pope calls the “nuptial meaning” of the human body

 The Human Body Expresses the Person

           John Paul II introduces this idea in commenting on Genesis 2.18, which speaks of the man being “alone.” The solitude in question is that of “‘man’ (male and female) and not just of the solitude of man the male, caused by the lack of woman….this solitude has two meanings: one derived from man’s very nature, that is, from his humanity…and the other derived from the male-female relationship” (5.2). The solitude deriving from man’s very nature, John Paul II says, “enables us to link man’s original solitude with consciousness of the body, through which man is distinguished from all the animalia and is ‘separated’ from them, and also through which he is a person. It can be affirmed with certainty that that man, thus formed, has at the same time consciousness and awareness of the meaning of his own body, on the basis of the experience of original solitude” (6.3).

           In short, man’s awareness of his body as different from the bodies of other animals enables him to grasp the truth that he, alone among visible creatures, is a person, gifted with self-consciousness and self-determination.

           The Holy Father perhaps most dramatically shows that the human body reveals the human person when he considers the second meaning of man’s “solitude” and reflects on the text (Gn 2.18-24) describing in poetic terms the “creation” of woman. “When the man first exclaims at the sight of the woman: ‘This is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’ (Gn 2.23), he merely affirms,” the pope says, “the human identity of both. Exclaiming in this way, he seems to say: ‘here is a body that expresses the person’” (14.4).

           Since the body expresses the person, and since persons are to be loved, an ethical consequence is that we must never express with our bodies anything unworthy of the person. The body is a beautiful manifestation of a human person in all his or her God-given dignity.

 The Nuptial Meaning of the Body

           Reflecting once again on the first man’s cry of joy, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” the pope declares that these words in a way express “the subjectively beatifying beginning of man’s existence in the world” (14. 3).  “That beatifying ‘beginning’ of man’s being and existing, as male and female,” John Paul II continues,

is connected with the revelation and discovery of the meaning of the body, which can be called “nuptial.”…[the man’s words of joy, “this at last…] are followed by the verse which establishes their conjugal unity (Gn 2.24), and then by the one which testifies to the nakedness of both, without mutual shame (Gn 2.25). Precisely this significant confrontation enables us to speak of the revelation and at the same time the discovery of the “nuptial” meaning of the body in the very mystery of creation (14.5).

           In short, the male person’s body is a sign of the gift of the male person to the female person and vice versa.

           To put this another way, because of the nuptial meaning of the body man, male and female, realizes that he can fulfill himself as a person only by giving himself to another in love, in the sincere gift of self. He realizes that his vocation is to love.

           In a memorable passage, in which he links the original nuptial meaning of the body to the absence of shame in the state of original innocence prior to the “fall” (see Gn 2.25), John Paul then says:

Happiness is being rooted in love. Original happiness speaks to us of the “beginning” of man, who emerged from Love and initiated love. That happened in an irrevocable way, despite the subsequent sin and death. In his time, Christ will be a witness to this irreversible love of the Creator and Father, which had already been expressed in the mystery of creation and in the grace of original innocence. And therefore also the common “beginning” of man and woman, that is, the original truth of their body in masculinity and femininity, to which Genesis 2.25 draws our attention, does not know shame. This “beginning” can also be defined as the original and beatifying immunity from shame as a result of love (16.2; emphasis added).

           This immunity from shame directs us to the mystery of man’s original innocence, which is the mystery of his existence, prior to the knowledge of good and evil and almost “outside” it. The fact that man exists in this way, before the breaking of the first covenant with his Creator, belongs to the fullness of the mystery of creation. Why is this so? John Paul II explains as follows:

If…creation is a gift to man, then his fullness and deepest dimension is determined by grace, that is, by participation in the interior life of God himself, in his holiness. This is…, in man, the interior foundation and source of his original innocence. It is with this concept—and more precisely with that of “original justice”—that theology defines the state of man before original sin (16.3).

           Of crucial importance is the fact that it is “the very awareness of the body—or, rather, awareness of the meaning of the body [its “nuptial meaning”]” that “reveals the peculiarity of original innocence” (16.3). In fact,

the body itself is, in a way, an “eye” witness of this characteristic. It is significant that the affirmation contained in Genesis 2.25—about nakedness mutually free from shame—is a statement unique in its kind in the whole Bible, so that it will never be repeated. On the contrary, we can quote many texts in which nakedness will be connected with shame or even, in a stronger sense, with “ignominy” (16.3; in footnote 1 John Paul II refers to Hosea 1.2 and Ezekiel 23.26, 29 as texts to illustrate this).

           Original innocence “is what ‘radically’…excludes shame of the body in the man-woman relationship, eliminates its necessity in man, in his heart, that is, in his conscience” and it refers above all to “the interior state of the human ‘heart,’ of the human will” (16.4). This original innocence is a “particular ‘purity of heart’ which preserves an interior faithfulness to the gift according to the nuptial meaning of the body” (16.4).

Concupiscence “Veils” the “Nuptial Meaning” of the Body

           This is a third idea central to the “theology of the body,” and the pope develops it both in his reflections on the third chapter of Genesis, which tells us of the sin of the first man and its dreadful consequences for human existence, and on the New Testament’s teaching on “concupiscence.” In reflecting on the Genesis text he likewise highlights the contrast between the lack of shame over their nakedness experience by Adam and Eve in the state of original innocence and on the shame over their nakedness that they experience after their fall from grace.

           Commenting on Genesis 3, John Paul II writes: “The man who gathers the fruit of the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ makes…a fundamental choice and carries it out against the will of the Creator….man turns his back on God-Love, on ‘the Father’…he detaches his heart and almost cuts it off from what ‘is of the Father’: thus there remains in him what is ‘of the world’” (26.4). “It was then that ‘the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked’ (Gn 3.7)….Genesis 3.6 speaks explicitly of shame in connection with sin. That shame is almost the first source of the manifestation in man—in both, man and woman—of what ‘is not of the Father, but of the world’” (26.5).

           Because of their shame man and woman find it necessary to hide from God. This “indicates that in the depths of the shame they both feel before each other…there has matured a sense of fear before God, a fear previously unknown” (27.1).

A certain fear always belongs to the very essence of shame: nevertheless original shame reveals its character in a particular way: “I was afraid, because I was naked.” We realize that something deeper than physical shame…is in action here. Man tries to cover with the shame of his own nakedness the real origin of fear, indicating rather its effect, in order not to call its cause by name…. Actually, through “nakedness” there is manifested man deprived of participation in the Gift, man alienated from that Love which had been the source of the original gift, the source of the fullness of the good intended for the creature. This man…was deprived of the supernatural and preternatural gifts which were part of his “endowment” before sin. Furthermore, he suffered a loss in what belongs to his nature itself, to humanity in the original fullness “of the image of God” (27.2; emphasis added).

           Shame is the sign that a radical change has come over man. In the state of original innocence nakedness did not express a lack but rather a full acceptance of the body in all its human and personal truth. It was “a faithful witness and a tangible verification of man’s original ‘solitude’ in the world, becoming at the same time, by means of his masculinity and femininity, a limpid element of mutual donation in the communion of persons” (27.3). But now, as a result of original sin and of the concupiscence that has entered his “heart,” man has lost, in a way, “the original certainty of the ‘image of God,’ expressed in his body” (27.4). This, John Paul II says, can be called “cosmic shame” that man experienced with regard to his Creator.

           This “cosmic” shame “makes way in the biblical text for another form of shame…the shame produced in humanity itself.”

This is the woman’s shame “with regard to” the man and also the man’s “with regard to” the woman: mutual shame…The Yahwist text seems to indicate explicitly the “sexual” character of this shame: “they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons.” However, we may wonder if the “sexual” aspect has only a “relative” character…i.e., if it is a question of shame of one’s own sexuality only in reference to a person of the other sex (28.1).

           The pope clarifies the “immanent” and “relative” meanings of sexual shame. He maintains that although the text of Genesis 3.7 (“the eyes of both of them were opened…”) seems to support the relative character of original shame, nonetheless deeper reflection

makes it possible to discover its more immanent background. That shame, which is certainly manifested in the “sexual” order, reveals a specific difficulty in perceiving the human essentiality of one’s own body: a difficulty which man had not experienced in the state of original innocence. Through these words there is revealed a certain constitutive break within the human person, almost a rupture of man’s original spiritual and somatic unity (28.2).

           “Immanent shame,” the pope writes,

contains such a cognitive acuteness as to create a fundamental disquiet in the whole of human existence:…the body, which is not subordinated to the spirit as in the state of original innocence, bears within itself a constant center of resistance to the spirit and threatens…the unity of the man-person. Lust, and in particular the lust of the body, is a specific threat to the structure of self-control and self-mastery through which the human person is formed (28.3; emphasis added).

           Shame has a double meaning: “it indicates the threat to the value and at the same time preserves this value interiorly” (28.6). Shame is experienced because one fears that the sexual values of his body will be consumed by the lust of others and he thus seeks to protect those values because they are personal.

           Lust menaces the “communion of persons” and distorts the nuptial meaning of the body. John Paul II stresses that since the body, after the fall, no longer expresses the person adequately, “the capacity of communicating themselves to each other, of which Genesis 2.25 speaks, has been shattered” (29.2). It is as if the body, “in its masculinity and femininity, no longer constituted the ‘trustworthy’ substratum of the communion of persons” (29.2). Because of lust the man will want to “dominate” the woman and the woman, who will desire her husband (cf. Gn 3.16), will feel a lack of full unity. Thus the “original beatifying conjugal union of persons will be distorted in man’s heart by lust” (30.4).  An adequate analysis of Genesis 3, he maintains, “leads to the conclusion that the three forms of lust [referred to in John 2.16-17, namely, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and pride of life] bring with them a limitation of the nuptial meaning of the body itself, in which man and woman participated in the state of original innocence” (31.5). Nonetheless, the human body, independently of our states of consciousness and our experiences, retains its nuptial meaning (cf. 30.5). It is simply that, as a result of sin and the entrance of the threefold concupiscence into the human heart, “the nuptial meaning of the body, which in the situation of original innocence constituted the measure of the heart of both, of the man and of the woman, must have undergone a distortion” (30.6; emphasis in original).

Through Union with Christ Man, Male and Female, Can Recover the “Nuptial Meaning” of the Body

           This is the fourth concept central to the “theology of the body,” and the pope develops this in his reflections on our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) and also on the teaching of St. Paul. Here I will summarize the relevant part of his reflections on the Sermon on the Mount.

           The pope first cites Christ’s words in Matthew 5:27-28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” These words, he declares:

do not allow us to stop at the accusation of the human heart and to regard it continually with suspicion, but must be understood and interpreted above all as an appeal to the heart….Redemption is a truth….in the name of which man must feel called…He must realize this call through Christ’s words…reread in the context of the revelation of the body. Man must feel called to rediscover, nay more, to realize the nuptial meaning of the body and to express in this way the interior freedom of the gift, that is, of that spiritual state and that spiritual power which are derived from mastery of the lust of the flesh (46.4).

           Christ’s words “bear witness that the original power (therefore also the grace) of the mystery of creation becomes for each of them [man and woman] power (that is, grace) of the mystery of redemption. That concerns the very ‘nature,’ the very substratum of the humanity of the person, the deepest impulses of the ‘heart’” (46.5). Christ’s redemptive call is to “the rediscovery of the meaning of the whole of existence, the meaning of life, in which there is contained also that meaning of the body which here we call ‘nuptial.’” Christ appeals to man’s “heart” to the “supreme value that is love,” called “as a person in the truth of his humanity, therefore also in the truth of his masculinity and femininity, in the truth of his body” (46.6).

           “Eros,” the Holy Father insists, must not be confused with lust. For Plato it “represents the interior force that drags man toward everything good, true, and beautiful” (47.2). It refers also to the natural and hence “good” desire experienced in the attraction of men for women and vice versa. However “erotic” desire is often identified with lust (47.3). A proper interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, taking into account the multiple meanings of “eros,” allows room “for that ethos, for those ethical and indirectly even theological contents which, in the course of our analyses, have been seen from Christ’s appeal to the human “heart” (47.4). Christ’s appeal is “the ethos of redemption. The call to what is true, good, and beautiful [“eros” in the Platonic sense] means, at the same time, in the ethos of redemption, the necessity of overcoming what is derived from lust in its three forms….If the words of Mathew 5.27-28 represent this call, then they mean that, in the erotic sphere, ‘eros’ and ‘ethos’ do not differ from each other, are not opposed to each other, but are called to meet in the human heart, and in this meeting to bear fruit” (47.5).

           Ethos, the pope continues, must become the ”constituent form” of eros. Ethos is in no way hostile to “spontaneity.” The person who accepts the ethos of Matthew 5.27-28 “must know that he is called to full and mature spontaneity of the relations that spring from the perennial attraction of masculinity and femininity. This very spontaneity is the gradual fruit of the discernment of the impulses of one’s own heart” (48.2). “This discernment…has an essential relationship with spontaneity….a noble gratification is one thing, while sexual desire is another; when sexual desire is linked with a noble gratification, it differs from desire pure and simple” (48.4). Only through self-control can man attain “that deeper and more mature spontaneity with which his ‘heart,’ mastering his instincts, rediscovers the spiritual beauty of the signs constituted by the human body in its masculinity and femininity” (48.5). To put this another way, I think we could say that “self-control,” an essential ingredient of purity of heart, enables us to take possession of our desires and not be possessed by them precisely so that we can give ourselves away in love.

           John Paul emphasizes that Christ’s words in Matthew 5.27-28 must be seen in the perspective of “the redemption of man and of the world (and, therefore, precisely of the ‘redemption of the body’). This, in fact, is the perspective of the…whole mission of Christ” (49.3). In his Sermon Jesus does not invite man to return to the state of original innocence, because this has been irretrievably lost, “but he calls him to rediscover—on the foundations of the perennial and…indestructible meanings of what is ‘human’—the living forms of the ‘new man’.” He thus establishes continuity between the “beginning” and the perspective of redemption, for “in the ethos of the redemption of the body the original ethos of creation will have to be taken up again” (49.4). To achieve this redemption the man to whom Christ appeals must, with his help, be pure of heart, for “purity is a requirement of love” (49.7).

           Christ makes it clear, when he affirms (Matt 15.18-20) that what defiles a man comes from his “heart,” from within himself, that “the concept of ‘purity’ and ‘impurity’ in the moral sense is in the first place a general concept, not a specific one: so that all moral good is a manifestation of purity” (50.4). The man, male and female, who is “pure of heart” is the one who has taken possession of his or her desires; he or she is the one who has, through union with Christ, “redeemed” his or body, has rediscovered its “nuptial meaning” and is now able, thanks to Christ’s redemptive work, to “give” himself or herself away in love and to become fully one flesh in the beautiful reality of marriage.


           An attentive reading of God’s revealed word shows us that the triune God of love made man, male and female, to image him fully in their communion of persons, a communion made possible precisely because of their sexual complementarity as revealed in the nuptial meaning of their bodies, which signifies that the male person is intended by God as a “gift” to the female person and vice versa. Male and female are to give themselves away to each other in love and to become one flesh and in doing so open themselves up to the gift of fertility and in doing to image even more fully the God who made them. In the state of original innocence the nuptial meaning of their bodies was manifest, and as a result the man and the woman did not experience shame over their nakedness because they did not fear that the other would view them, not as a person to be love but as an object to be consumed. But as a result of their fall from innocence, concupiscence entered into the human heart and “veiled” the nuptial meaning of the body, with the result that man and woman experience shame over their nakedness, a shame experienced because the person, male or female, fears that the sexual values of his or her body will be consumed by the lust of others and thus the person, male or female, seeks to protect those values because they are personal.

           But God so loves man, male and female, that he comes in the person of Jesus Christ to “redeem” his created image and to enable man, male and female, to become pure of heart, to come into possession of his desires and not to be possessed by them, so that man, male and female, can rediscover the nuptial meaning of the body and give himself and herself away in marital love. [3]


1. These Wednesday audiences comprised six “cycles” of addresses. The first cycle, entitled “The Beginning,” includes the first 23 addresses, given from September 5, 1979 through April 2, 1980; the second, called “The Redemption of the Heart,” includes addresses 24-63, given from April 16, 1980 through May 6, 1981; the third, “The Resurrection of the Flesh,” numbers 64-72, given from November 11, 1981 through February 10, 1982; the fourth, “Christian Virginity,” numbers 73-86, from March 10, 1982 through July 21,1982; the fifth, “Christian Marriage,” numbers 87-117, given from July 28, 1982 through July 4, 1984; and the sixth, “Love and Fecundity,” numbers 118-133, given from July 11, 1984 and November 28, 1984.

All these addresses have been gathered together in a one-volume definitive Italian edition, Giovanni Paolo II, Uomo e Donna lo creò (Città Nuova Editrice: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1987). The Daughters of St. Paul published cycle one under the title Original Unity of Man and Woman: Catechesis on the Book of Genesis in 1981; cycle two under the title Blessed Are the Pure in Heart: Catechesis on the Sermon on the Mount and the Teaching of St. Paul in 1983; cycles three, four, and five under the title The Theology of Marriage and Celibacy in 1986; and cycle six under the title Reflections on Humanae Vitae in 1985 (Boston: St. Paul Editions). In 1998 the Daughters published the entire series in one volume, Pope John Paul II, Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan (Boston: Pauline Books and Media), with an introduction by John Grabowski. In my opinion the one-volume English edition grants concessions to “politically correct” language (e.g., use of “human being” or “person” in place of “man”), with the result that I think it preferable to use the four-volume edition. In addition, the four-volume English edition provide paragraph numbers for the different sections of each of the addresses, whereas the one-volume edition fails to provide them. Their use facilitates finding the location of given texts within the addresses. Thus in this paper I will refer to the number of the address followed by a reference to the appropriate paragraph number within the address. Thus, for example, 14.2 refers to the fourteenth address, paragraph 2. John Paul developed the concepts central to the “theology of the body” in the first two cycles, “The Beginning,” i.e., the addresses found in Original Unity of Man and Woman, and “The Redemption of the Heart,” i.e., the addresses contained in Blessed Are the Pure of Heart. Here I will provide in parentheses, after citing from these addresses, the number of the address, followed by a period, and then the appropriate paragraph number.

2. See Pope John Paul II, "Nuptial Meaning of the Body," 14.2. In this text Pope John Paul II is explicitly concerned with the account in Genesis 2, but the expression "beatifying beginning" can also be applied to the narrative in Genesis 1.

3. On the biblical teaching on human sexuality and sexual ethics see also Ronald Lawler, OFM Cap, Joseph Boyle, and William E. May, Catholic Sexual Ethics: A Summary, Explanation, and Defense (Second Edition: Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 1998), p 32-45.

Copyright ©; William E. May 2005

Version: 8th June 2005

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